Amidst The City, A Wilderness Paradise

Exiting the last T-Bane (metro) stop on Line 3 at Oslo's Sognsvann station, just 20 minutes from the city's center, we were literally dropped at nature's front door. Surrounded by Norway spruce, Scots pine and birch, I took in the fresh Norwegian air. I'd arrived at Nordmarka, Oslo's "northern forest"—the literal translation—and I hadn't even left the city.

Hailing from the Twin Cities and vacationing each summer in the woods of Northern Minnesota, I was raised in a culture proud of its outdoorsy roots and Scandinavian heritage. After all, it's not uncommon to find pickled herring and smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) around Minneapolis, and Nordic skiing in the shadow of downtown is an annual tradition. So when I planned a Scandinavian vacation last summer with my boyfriend, Jason, I figured the language would be the only thing foreign to me. Despite the natural beauty of my home state, though, it was the interface between urban and wild that was most surprising and refreshing to me as we began to explore Oslo.

Upon arriving in the city, we were met by our friend Blake, an expat also from Minnesota. It didn't take long to discover why he'd put down roots in Norway's capital, which sits on the northern tip of the Oslofjord. Once a container port, the city's waterfront is now a bustling cultural center, marked by the Oslo Opera House and tourist-packed shops and restaurants. Houses, schools and shops are being built all the time to accommodate the influx of immigrants to Europe's fastest growing city.

On our first morning in the city, we explored the bright, bustling waterfront on foot, dodging crowds and taking in the landscape as we ran along the fjord. It was beautiful, but the green, mountainous terrain that lay a few miles away to the north was what really captured my imagination.

The next day, we boarded the T-Bane near the harbor. A few minutes later, Blake was ushering us off the train and into the hushed forest. The July temperatures hovered in the mid-60s and a light mist blanketed the wild expanse in a sort of fog.

Marked by its diverse topography and hundreds of miles of trails, the 106,000-acre Nordmarka—by way of comparison, New York's Central Park is 843 acres—is a wilderness waiting to be explored. Making our way down the trail, we passed other hikers, as well as mountain bikers, trail runners, and even a wetsuit-clad swimmer who was preparing for a workout in Sognsvann Lake. In the wintertime, Blake tells us, Nordmarka becomes a Nordic skier's paradise, and downtown is packed with gear-clad pedestrians who need only hop aboard the T-Bane to experience some of the world's best trails.

The whole of Nordmarka forest is well marked with blue trails for summer hiking, biking and running, and 280 miles of red trails for wintertime skiing. We hiked off in search of a view, our route climbing up from well-trod lakeside dirt and gravel trails to more rugged terrain—mossy boulders and slick stones—that was a tad dicey in the rain.

We followed signs to the peak of Vettakollen, a 1,375-foot hill that offers commanding views of the surrounding landscape. Looking off to the northwest, the steel-and-concrete base of the famed Holmenkollen ski jump pushed up through the blanket of trees below. It's the ski jump, the accompanying ski museum and the Nordic ski trails—which play host to World Cup events each winter—that make this the most popular tourist attraction in Norway. To the southwest, the lush, green forest opened up to reveal downtown Oslo and the fjord. Not far below was a noisy, bustling metropolis, but at the top of Vettakollen all we could hear was a soft breeze and the faint tones of music drifting from somewhere near the ski jump.

It felt like a magical place, the wet trees giving off a dim, green glow and filling the air with the rich, organic scent of rain mixed with pine. We lingered awhile at the summit, enjoying oranges and Kvikk Lunsj, a traditional Norwegian chocolate that resembles a Kit-Kat bar. Invigorated by the open space, cool air and chocolate fuel, we headed back down the craggy path, which opened up into dirt trails towards a small neighborhood surrounding the T-Bane station. We'd barely scratched the surface after a full day of hiking, but our legs were tired and we were hungry for a real meal. Back in the city, we wolfed down a well-earned meal of fish soup and aquavit and began planning a winter trip back to Oslo and its urban wilderness oasis, the Nordmarka.